Free-trade pact raises concerns about exploitation of Mexico's child workers

December 15, 1991|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Mexico City Bureau of The Sun

REYNOSA, Mexico -- Mariana Garrocho Zuniga is 13 and the proud wearer of Delco badge No. 58491. She earns 67 cents an hour at the Delnosa plant of Delco, a General Motors Corp. subsidiary. Barely 5 feet tall and weighing about 98 pounds, Mariana does not seem strong enough to work a 48-hour week making --board components for Cadillacs. Under Mexican labor law, she shouldn't be working at all. The legal working age is 14.

Yesterday, President Bush met with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to discuss the free-trade pact being negotiated by the United States, Canada and Mexico that could have a marked effect on Mariana and 12 million other children working in Mexico.

The agreement would create a North American free trade zone with 360 million consumers and an estimated annual output of $360 trillion.

Mr. Bush and trade proponents say the agreement will bring prosperity to Mexico, in turn benefiting children like Mariana who might have stayed in school had their families made decent wages.

They predict that the trade pact will enable a financially strapped Mexico to enforce its labor and environmental laws.

However, others fear that the trade agreement will only lead to increased exploitation of the children. They are concerned that hundreds of other U.S. firms will follow the lead of companies that have already located plants along the border to take advantage of Mexico's low wages, weak unions and lax enforcement of labor laws.

Mariana's case is among six child-labor violations found at facilities of three leading U.S. companies, which either hired underage children or worked them beyond what the law allows.

Besides General Motors, the other companies are the Zenith Electronics Corp. of Glenview, Ill., the largest U.S. television manufacturer, and the Duro Bag Manufacturing Co. of Ludlow, Ky., the nation's No. 1 maker of shopping bags.

General Motors and Zenith, the largest employers on the border, are strong backers of the trade agreement.

Of the six youngsters interviewed for this article, two were underaged girls -- Mariana at General Motors and another 13-year-old girl at the Duro plant in nearby Rio Bravo.

One youngster worked an illegal shift of 16 1/2 hours, and the three others also were working illegally long shifts.

Most of the children working here were reluctant to be interviewed for fear of losing their jobs, as Mariana did after a reporter inquired into her case.

Since the early 1980s, millions of Mexican families have found their lives uprooted with the collapse of the nation's economy under the weight of depressed oil prices, a huge foreign debt, triple-digit inflation and disastrous farm policies.

According to the Mexican Center for Children's Rights, there are 12 million working children in Mexico. The center said that 400,000 children quit mandatory primary school last year, most to seek work to help their struggling families.

"There was no other option but to work," says Mariana, whose face still has some baby fat.

After graduating from the sixth grade last June, she needed to help support her struggling family. So she defied her grandmother, lying about her age in order to meet the minimum-age requirement of 16 at the Delnosa plant.

She had hated school, but she loved the company and the job.

Her weekly take-home pay of $33 had provided nearly half the income for a grandmother, two brothers and a sister. Her fondest hope was to save enough money to become a beautician.

Those hopes were dashed Dec. 5, when executives at the Delnosa plant forced a weeping Mariana to resign after learning that her true age was 13, and not 16 as she had claimed.

Mariana was born in a rural area near the town of Panuco in Veracruz state, where her family had lived for generations as farmers and small businessmen.

Though the family struggled to keep things together, it soon became apparent that the situation was hopeless. Mariana's father left home to find work. Her mother died giving birth to a younger sister, Alejandrina.

The family was held together by Antonia Baltazar, Mariana's tough grandmother who decided to lead her four grandchildren to Reynosa, a Mexican city that had what few others could offer -- jobs.

For example, the Zenith complex here employs about 8,000 people, the Delco plant about 4,000 and the Duro plant about 900. Most of the workers are women between the ages of 16 and 22.

Like a lot of border towns, Reynosa has become the site of foreign-owned maquiladora plants that assemble products from imported materials. The plants pay taxes only on the value added to the product in Mexico before the finished products are sent back to the country of origin.

Besides a tax break, the maquiladora system, which is more than 80 percent American, has other characteristics -- weak labor unions, cheap wages, poorly enforced environmental laws and its closeness to the world's largest consumer market, the United States.

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